Going for the gold. Sandy black sludge is pay dirt for Finland's champion panners
SOME 30 contestants sit squarely on low benches around the perimeter of a 10-by-30-foot pool of shallow water at Tankav"a"ara's Hopia Stream. Pans in laps, buckets of sand behind them, they eye the rustic fellow who stands poised, holding steel pan and hammer in the air. He opens his mouth; they grip their pans. ``Ready, set . . . ,'' and with a crash in the pan the race is on.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Participants hoist their buckets, dumping sand into pans. Rubber boots in the water, knees wide apart, they throw their shoulders forward and plunge their pans into the stream. After plucking out large pieces of gravel and breaking up lumps of clay, each raises his pan to the surface and begins the circular slosh-jerk-slosh motion that sounds like percussionists steel-brushing their drums. If done correctly, this motion stirs up muck and light sand until it washes over the edge of the pan, leaving a promising residue of gold particles glinting through black sand.
One by one, the fortunate washers extract gold bits and pop them into three-inch vials. ``Hup!'' each hollers, swinging his pan high overhead in celebration, before running the vial over to judges for inspection.
The tournament is taking place in the wee village of Tankav"a"ara, 230 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the heart of Finnish Lapland. This is Finland's national competition, and the winners go on to the ninth annual world championship, held this year in Genoa, Italy. In fact, Tankav"a"ara itself often hosts the world finals, since this is where it all began.
This is a region relatively poor in pay dirt, but rich in wishful thinking. The territory unabashedly boasts the nickname ``Kultula'' or Gold Land, even though it has yielded no more than 21/2 tons of the shiny stuff in the century since engineer J. C. Lihr first saw something glitter in the Ivalo River. Lihr's find sparked an 1870 rush of 600 would-be gold miners who did not realize the Ivalo would put more fish meat in their bellies than gold grains in their pockets. In their first and ult imately most productive year, these panners collectively scratched a mere 125 pounds of the gold from Kultula's stingy stream. That annual haul, and every one since, pales when compared with the yearly outputs of today's top gold producers -- South Africa, at 655 tons; the Soviet Union, 312; and Canada, 64. Juxtaposing Lapland's figures with these is, to use gold-nugget jargon, like comparing a nit to a whopper.
Although Finnish Lapland lured far fewer prospectors than the other 19th-century rushes to California, Klondike, and Witwatersrand, each of which drew thousands of miners, gold fever here has proved as durable as the metal itself. When strikes along the Ivalo petered out, a few die-hard dreamers kept exploring until someone made a find along the Lemmen River and kicked off a new rush. Every 20 years or so prospectors found a new carat waving in front of their noses, beckoning them to keep sloshing. Most
inspiring was Eevert Kiviniemi's record-holding 395-gram nugget, found at the Lutto River in 1935.
The World Gold Panning Championship owes its origin to two seasoned Finnish prospectors, Niilo Raumala and Yrjo Korhonen. In the 1960s, the price of gold dropped enough to make these veterans pull up their 20-year Lemmen River stakes and head south to Tankav"a"ara, where folks had panned sporadically for 30 years or so. There, a nugget's throw from the newly constructed Route 4, these fellows started a makeshift business, showing tourists and passers-by how to wash for gold. Enthusiasts trickled in and